News review 2014: Fire, fraud and floods plague farming

Insurers count cost farm fires

An alarming increase in the numbers of farm fires kept fire crews busy across the UK this year.

According to rural insurer NFU Mutual, the cost of agricultural fires rose to more than £50m in 2014 – more than the total cost of rural crime to businesses.

More than 1,600 farm buildings went up in smoke, costing thousands in lost machinery, crops and livestock. Most fires involved stacked and baled crops, along with barn fires. But straw, grass, silos and farm machinery also went up in flames.

Tim Price, spokesman for NFU Mutual, said he was concerned by the increase in fires. “Farm fires make up the second largest part of our farm account claims bill after farm accidents,” he added.

“The scale of the problem shows how important it is to take all possible steps to prevent fires breaking out, and to have clear plans to evacuate people and livestock safely in the event of a fire.”

Fire incidents in 2014

  • March: Fire destroys 100t of straw bales and wrecked livestock housing at Langside Farm in Dalkieth, Midlothian, Scotland.
  • April: Up to 4,300 pigs perished in a fire at a farm near Bessbrook, Northern Ireland.
  • May: Fire destroyed a poultry shed and 24,000 chicks on a farm in Marford, North Wales.
  • August: Firebugs were blamed for torching a 600t haystack near Farnborough, Hampshire.
  • October: Three boys arrested on suspicion of arson after fire destroyed 12,000 straw bales on a farm in Sleaford, Lincolnshire.
  • December: Police launch investigation after huge fire damaged £300,000 of straw and equipment at Binns Farm, Fowlis, Scotland.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds lost to fraudsters

Farmers have become top targets for fraud, with hundreds of thousands of pounds stolen by slick, well-organised gangs.

During one spate in March, tele­phone conmen took almost £500,000 out of farmers’ bank accounts in the north-west of England.

One farmer lost £90,000 when he revealed his online banking details. Farmers in Yorkshire were targeted in April and yet another reported losing £100,000 in one attack.

Wales, Scotland and Ireland were also hit as the scammers widened their net.

In what became a well-worn pattern in 2014, a man posing as a bank operator telephoned, often late in the evening, and warned his potential victims that their bank accounts had been compromised.

The conman would advise emptying entire accounts into a “safe” account. The victim was told to phone the bank using the number published on the back of their bank card to confirm the call was genuine. But the fraudster lay in wait, holding the line open .

Believing the person on the other end of the line had to be a bank official, countless farmers divulged all of their account information.

It was not just one method of scamming that featured in 2014. Invoice fraud, where the victim was tricked by a criminal organisation into changing the bank account payee details, was also rife.

The fraudsters pretended to be from an organisation the farmer did business with and informed them of a change of bank account details. The unwitting victims again parted with key financial information.

The oddest fraud of the year was a man posing as a cattle semen buyer. He ordered thousands of pounds of semen from breeders.

But when his cheque arrived, it was thousands of pounds too high. The fraudster then demanded the extra money back hoping the breeder would return the overpayment.

With the excess returned, the bogus buyer planned to cancel the original cheque. However, it is thought this particular man has not been successful – yet.

Warm and wet, but coolest August

The worst winter floods in living memory ravaged Devon, Somerset and parts of the Thames Valley in January and February 2014.

The unprecedented deluge devastated the farming community and left the Somerset Levels looking like an inland sea.

Six weeks of torrential rain left 600 homes and 6,900ha (17,000 acres) of farmland on the Levels under water for weeks and wiped out crops and feed for livestock.

Somerset beef farmer James Winslade was forced out of his farm in Bridgwater and had to evacuate 550 cattle to safe havens.

In Oxfordshire, flood-blighted farmer Tim Hook faced a “six-figure loss” after his farm flooded for the sixth time since 2008.

In February, rural insurer NFU Mutual said it had dealt with more than 8,000 claims for storm and flood damage with a total bill of £70m-80m. Some businesses will take two years to fully recover from the battering.

After epic rainfall and severe flooding, Britain dried out in the equal-second warmest spring on record. May was wetter than average for many, particularly Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, and it was the wettest May in north-east England since 1979.

The UK overall recorded 84% of average rainfall in March, 93% in April and 142% in May.

The summer saw several spells of fine, settled weather but no major heatwaves. June and July were both warmer than average, but it was the coolest August since 1993, with a mean average temperature of 14.8C – three degrees below average.

Following a very dry September and a warm October, the Met Office said 2014 was on course to be the warmest and fourth wettest since records began in the UK.

From January to late November, average temperatures have been 1.6C above the historical average.

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